TUCKED away in the tiny hamlet of Bank about a mile south-west of Lyndhurst, the picturesque Oak Inn has a reputation for first class food inspired by local produce.
The pub, which is owned by Fullers, is also working to become a focal point of community life with regular quiz nights, live music and special events such as Easter egg hunts.
General manager Matt England has been at the helm since December 2018, having previously worked at the Angel and Blue Pig in Lymington.
He said: “The Oak Inn has a bit of a reputation as a gastro pub serving high quality food, but it was also important to me for it to be a local’s pub at the heart of its community.
“On the weekends we are often full up with walkers and cyclists but I want the community to feel like this is their pub first and foremost.”
From the outside the Oak Inn is postcard pretty with bow windows, colourful hanging baskets, New Forest ponies grazing on the small green outside and even a traditional red telephone box.
Stepping inside, the quintessentially English theme continues with soft lighting, low beamed ceilings, a snug bar featuring milk churn stools and wood burning stove.
The atmosphere is cosy and welcoming with dark floors and traditional touches such as antlers above the fire, beer hops hanging from the ceiling and horse brasses along the walls.
After being shown to our table by the friendly waitress we chose a bottle of South African Riebeek Cabernet Sauvignon (£20) featuring flavours of blackberry and spice.
Starter options included soup of the day served with crusty bread (£6) and potted duck with spiced pear chutney and toasted sourdough bread (£7.50) or a range of sharing platters such as Greek style mezze and a fish platter.
But as a huge lover of eggs Benedict the choice was easy – a starter of wild garlic mushrooms served on toasted brioche with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce (£7.50).
The dish was perfectly cooked and the delicate flavour of the wild mushrooms combined well with the soft toasted brioche and rich hollandaise sauce.
My husband opted for salt and pepper squid served with a smoked paprika sauce and a side of rocket salad (£7). The squid was tender to the bite and the batter was golden and crispy.
The main menu includes a range of meat, vegetarian and seafood dishes as well as speciality pies.
Again there is a strong emphasis on locally sourced meat with dishes such as Chalcroft Farm Hampshire beef burger with Mrs Owton’s bacon, HSB Gouda, gem lettuce, tomato, gherkins, red onion and triple cooked chips (£13.50); Owton’s dry-aged 8oz Hampshire rib-eye steak with triple cooked chips, tomato and béarnaise sauce (£24); and breast of corn-fed chicken with truffle mash, wild mushroom and pea fricassee (£14).
The pub also features an ever-changing specials menu – which is influenced by seasonal local fare.
Dishes included pan-fried salmon fillet with butterbean and chorizo cassoulet (£17); game faggots with creamy mash, kale and red wine jus (£14.50) and pigeon, pancetta and pomegranate salad, spinach and chilli baked squash (£14).
After hearing manager Matt enthuse about the locally sourced venison, which is reared on the Beaulieu Estate and supplied by Owton’s, I opted for seared venison haunch served with black pudding croquettes, kale and red wine jus (£21).
The dish was incredible – a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. The meat was cooked rare so it was very tender and arrived fanned across the plate on a bed of vibrant green kale, and drizzled with wonderful red wine jus.
Despite not being a fan of black pudding I also enjoyed the soft croquette which was served in a stuffing-like ball.
My partner chose the roast pork belly, served with dauphinoise potatoes, red cabbage and apple compote (£15) which was also featured on the specials board.
Again presentation was exquisite and the portion size was generous, and he particularly enjoyed the creamy potatoes, and combination of crispy pork crackling and tender belly meat.
Although we were both feeling pretty full up after finishing off our mouth-watering mains, the choice of puddings was extremely tempting.
We were told that the Oak Inn cheese board, featuring black bomber Snowdonia Cheddar, Blue Monday Yorkshire Blue, Waterloo Brie, quince jelly and crackers (£9), was very popular with diners. But I was craving something sweet and light so chose lemon posset with shortbread (£6.50).
The posset was incredibly light and creamy, served in a glass with a garnish of fresh raspberries and candied citrus peel. Again, the dish was beautiful presented and the shortbread was crumbly and light.
My partner chose Baileys and brioche bread and butter pudding with creamy vanilla buffalo milk ice cream (£7) which he described as unusual but incredibly tasty.
With its idyllic setting and traditional New Forest interior and exterior, it’s little wonder that the Oak Inn is a popular destination for walkers, cyclists and day trippers.
But with its warm welcome, excellent locally inspired menu, and focus on community events and activities, the pub is also winning plenty of fans closer to home. If you fancy a visit I would recommend booking ahead as inside seating is limited.